Why are so few novels about the so-called Dark Ages published nowadays? Alfred Duggan used to write them and Bernard Cornwell dabbles there occasionally with his Arthurian novels and his recent series set in the time of King Alfred. It was a pivotal period in English history: from the end of Roman Britain, and into the Anglo-Saxon age, an era of conflict and culture clash with shifting frontiers, divided loyalties, danger, idealism, heroics and high tragedy, far from the popular image of thud and blunder, mud and middens, as Carla Nayland shows us in her new novel, Paths of Exile. And on top of all that, so little is known of the period that the novelist has exhilarating scope for the imagination in the big gaps between the lines of the scant but often vivid sources.
Paths of Exile is set in what is now Northern England at the beginning of the 7th century AD. Aethelferth, king of Bernicia (roughly modern Northumberland) has invaded the neighbouring kingdom of Deira (approximately today's Yorkshire), and defeated its ruler Aelle and his son and heir Eadric. Eadric's devoted younger brother Eadwine comes too late to the rescue and believes Eadric has been treacherously murdered. Eadwine, homeless and lordless, the worst predicament for an Anglo-Saxon man, nevertheless vows to avenge his brother's death and sets out to find the mysterious assassin as well as rescuing his betrothed in the terrible knowledge that Aethelferth has sworn to kill him in thanks to the gods for victory.
Thus begins an exciting, tautly-plotted tale that's action-packed thriller, murder mystery, tragedy and romance all rolled into one and set in an authentic landscape I can see and touch and feel. But it's much more than that, mainly because the author has peopled her story with flesh-and-blood-characters who are both convincingly of their own time and yet, with all their fears and hopes, not at all alien to us. I still find myself thinking of them as if they were old friends just lately gone away and whom I hope to meet again*. Character is revealed mainly through dialogue which is often laced with humour - wry, dry and bawdy. No doubt the purists won't like it (too modern, too much swearing, tsk, tsk, yet it feels entirely right for Eadwine to curse in, for example, moments of affectionate exasperation such as when he tries in vain to release his followers from their oath of loyalty - a telling, and touching, scene).
Oh, and I learned a lot without even realising it, for instance from Eadwine in his moving exposition on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society, "A lord is the helmet of his people, Treowin, not their scourge."
*A sequel is in the offing, hurrah! But will it reveal the words of that naughty ditty known as Attacotti Nell?